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Trailer homes have traveled far

By James D. RitchieSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / September 13, 1985

Look what's happened to the old trailer home -- the ``railroad car'' that always seemed to be on the ``wrong side of the tracks.'' Forty years ago, when GIs returned from World War II with a pent-up demand for instant housing, a lot of them found the answer in factory-built, aluminum structures which were known simply as ``trailer houses.''

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No one really wanted them in ``their neighborhood'' at the time. But then the ``trailers'' of yesterday began to change. As the demand for roll-your-own housing grew, the structures widened and lengthened into today's ``mobile home.''

Actually, the polite term these days is ``manufactured housing'' (made legal by Congress in the 1980 Housing Act) and mobility is only relative.

A modern-day manufactured home may roll to a homesite with 1,800 square feet or more of living space, and sport such features as a sunken living room, eat-in country kitchen, and fireplace -- virtually everything to be found in a site-built home except a basement.

Also, as the built-to-be-towed house has changed, so have its occupants. In the 1940s and '50s, a big share of mobile homes were owned by construction workers, oil-field employees and military servicemen -- people whose employment or life style called for frequent moves.

In the 1960s, retirees and others who wanted to stay in one place found the mobile home an affordable option to conventional housing. Just about then, however, younger couples discovered mobile homes could provide a comfortable alternative to small, two-bedroom, ``starter,'' site-built houses that long had been the first homes for most newlyweds.

``We began in a 10-by-50-footer in the mid-'60s,'' says Ted Maynard of Columbia, Mo. ``Then we gradually traded up, first to a 12-by-65-foot mobile home, and then to an even larger unit.''

Mr. Maynard, an auto mechanic by trade, and his wife, Dorothy, a bookkeeper, found that mobile-home living suited them well. Rather than move into a conventional home when their income and financial situation would permit, Mr. Maynard says, they merely swapped for a larger, more luxurious mobile home, although the family planned to stay in the same area.

The Maynards have been joined by an increasingly broad group of Americans. Today, nearly 1 out of every 3 new single-family dwellings is a manufactured home.

Mobile homes are no longer the housing of choice primarily for families who lead a nomadic existence. More manufactured homes are moving into subdivisions or onto private property, instead of poorly situated parks where homeowners lease a site.

While mobile-home owners, on the average, are becoming more permanent -- and more affluent -- cost still is a big motive for buying a factory-built house. A survey by National Family Opinion Inc., conducted for the Foremost Insurance Company of Grand Rapids, Mich. (a leading insurer of mobile homes), shows the average mobile-home buyer pays about $22,000 for his dwelling, compared with a national average of nearly $90,000 for a conventional new single-family house.